By Honor Blanco Cabie
MANILA — While the Philippines stands up against the threat of Omicron variant (B.1.1.529) of coronavirus 2019, detected this month in the country, millions south of the capital are homeless and braving the cold winds 24/7 from the onslaught of killer typhoon Odette (international name Rai).
The Omicron, a variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was first reported to the World Health Organization from South Africa on November 24, 2021. Two days later, the WHO designated it as a variant of concern and named it “Omicron,” the 15th letter in the Greek alphabet.
The Department of Health, the University of the Philippines-Philippine Genome Center, and the University of the Philippines-National Institutes of Health have reported that two imported cases of the Omicron variant were detected from the 48 samples sequenced on December 14.
Aside from these two Omicron cases, there were 33 positive for the Delta (B.1.617.2) variant while 13 had no lineage assigned.
This month, the Philippines logged at least 2.8 million infections and nearly 51,000 deaths.
The latest sequencing run was composed of samples from 21 Returning Overseas Filipinos (ROFs), one foreign national, and 26 local cases from areas with case clusters.
Vaccination of children aged 5-11
In the Senate meanwhile, Senator Win Gatchalian is urging local government units (LGUs) to prepare for the vaccination of children aged 5 to 11, which he said would be crucial in boosting confidence in safely reopening schools in January 2022 amid the threat of the Omicron variant.
He made this call after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for the inoculation of children aged 5 to 11.
The Department of Health (DOH) said last November it was targeting to vaccinate 13.5 million in this age group. Prior to this recent FDA approval, the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were used to inoculate minors in the 12 to 17 age group.
In a Senate panel hearing on the expansion of face-to-face classes held on December 17, the DOH reported that 7.1 million minors aged 12 to 17 have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, with 2.7 million of them now fully vaccinated.
There are 12.7 million minors in the 12 to 17 age group.
“Now that the vaccination against COVID-19 for aged 5 to 11 has been approved, the next step would be the local government’s preparations for the vaccination,” said Gatchalian, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Basic Education, Arts and Culture.
He stressed it was timely to have the children vaccinated especially with the opening of face-to-face classes.
If many of the children would be vaccinated, he said the confidence of students and parents would be higher.
Considering the damage inflicted by typhoon Odette in several parts of the country, Gatchalian is also urging the National Task Force Against COVID-19 to help Odette-hit LGUs in the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines for 5-to-11-year-old children.
The lawmaker emphasized the urgency of vaccinating children in Odette-hit areas because they have to deal with the combined threats of both COVID-19 and the aftermath of the typhoon.
The two Omicron variant cases are incoming travelers and are currently isolated in a facility managed by the government’s Bureau of Quarantine.
One is a Returning Overseas Filipino who arrived from Japan on December 1, 2021, via Philippine Airlines flight number PR 0427. The sample was collected four days later. His positive result was released on December 7 and the case was admitted to an isolation facility on the same date. He is currently asymptomatic but has symptoms of colds and cough upon arrival.
The other is a Nigerian national who arrived from Nigeria on November 30, 2021, via Oman Air with flight number WY 843. A sample was collected on December 6, 2021, and the result was released on December 7, 2021. He was then admitted to an isolation facility on the same date. His current status is also asymptomatic.
The DOH is determining possible close contacts among co-passengers during the flights of these two cases.
At the same time, the DOH is verifying the test results and health status of all passengers of these flights to determine if there are other confirmed cases or passengers who became symptomatic after arrival.
Of the additional 33 Delta variant cases, 14 were ROFs. The 19 local cases were tested in the following regions: three each from Central Visayas, Zamboanga Peninsula, Caraga, and Soccsargen, two from Western Visayas, and one each from the Cordillera Administrative Region, Central Luzon, Calabarzon, Eastern Visayas, and Davao Region, the DOH said in a statement.
The DOH is closely working with LGUs for them to conduct active case finding and ensure that COVID-19 cases are immediately isolated, tested and contact traced and that eligible samples for sequencing are submitted.
With the detection of the imported cases of Omicron variant, the DOH is also urging everyone to adhere to the minimum public standards and properly wear face masks, frequently wash hands with soap and water or alcohol, observe physical distancing, ensure proper ventilation, and avoid crowded areas. Moreover, this holiday season, the public should avoid holding mass gatherings to curb the transmission of COVID-19.
The DOH is also urging those unvaccinated to get vaccinated during the National Vaccination Days to receive the additional protection that vaccines provide against COVID-19.
As though the cataclysm was not enough, the strongest typhoon to hit the country this year, the 15th to make landfall in the Mindanao and the Visayas, has cut a swathe of death and destruction, leaving wide areas and scores of communities without communication and other basic needs.
Nearly 400 have been reported dead, and authorities suggest the numbers would rise when communication lines would be restored with 47 missing, and 568 injured, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) said.
Most of the victims died due to drowning and getting hit by falling trees, NDRRMC said.
A total 2,196,432 people or 585,029 families were affected by the typhoon in 4,566 barangays or villages – the affected regions were Mimaropa, Bicol, Western Visayas, Central Visayas, Eastern Visayas, Zamboanga, Northern Mindanao, Davao, Soccsksargen, Caraga, and Bangsamoro.
Initial estimates have put a total 486,361 people or 122,575 families staying inside 2,535 evacuation centers, while 123,341 individuals or 29,906 families were staying in the houses of their relatives and friends.
Before the weekend, the figures have soared to millions homeless – staying in evacuation centers or with relatives whose houses were not smashed by the ruthless driving winds.
“Search, rescue, and retrieval operations are still underway in some areas, so it’s premature to conclude the numbers, not to mention the limitation in the communication system due to interrupted signal connection that may delay the reporting scheme,” police authorities said.
Odette rains surpass Yolanda’s
The amount of rain unleashed by Odette surpassed the level brought by killer and destructive typhoon Yolanda (international Haiyan) in November 2013, the state weather bureau said.
Forecaster Raymond Ordinario told the agency’s 143rd Climate Forum that its synoptic station in Virac, Catanduanes recorded 272.1 millimeters of accumulated rainfall between December 14 and 18, 2021, when Odette was within the Philippine area of responsibility.
It is higher than the 223.8 mm of rainfall recorded in Calapan, Mindoro when Yolanda hit the country eight years ago, leaving an ugly swathe of destruction in life and infrastructure.
Ordinario said the high amount of rain over Virac was due to the convergence of Odette with the Northeast Monsoon when it reached the West Philippine Sea before leaving the Philippine Area of Responsibility at noon of December 18.
As for areas in Odette’s direct path, Surigao City recorded 234 mm of rainfall, while the town of Dauis, Bohol saw 232.7 mm of rain. Malaybalay, Bukidnon recorded 218.4 mm, while Butuan City experienced 207.6 mm of rainfall.
Odette was packing maximum sustained winds of up to 195 kph, on top of gustiness of up to 270 kph, at its peak.
In 2013, Yolanda had 235 kilometers per hour maximum winds and gusts of up to 275 kph at its peak.
“Comparing Odette with Yolanda, we can see that Yolanda brought less rain. But Yolanda had stronger winds and its track was much higher compared to Odette, so it triggered bigger storm surges. With Odette, we saw that strong winds also caused severe damage over areas of Visayas and Mindanao,” Ordinario said.
Ordinario added the data on Odette’s impact was still partial, as communication had yet to be restored with other PAGASA field offices.
The typhoon also caused P2,537,507,000 worth of damage to infrastructure and P1,152,834,160 worth of damage to agriculture.
(Editor’s Note: HBC, an award-winning journalist, and litterateur who teaches journalism and literature and writes speeches for senior government officials and private executives, was senior Correspondent of Reuters News Agency for 12 years. He covered the return of Prisoners of War in the 1970s, and is a much sought out resource person in journalism and literature seminars/webinars.)